Why the Minoans are important


What then can the Minoans tell us about the way that pre-money economies actually worked?  It has long been accepted that the palaces played a crucial role in the workings of the ‘gift exchange’ economy, with goods being rendered to the ruler and used by him for prestige purposes and being occasionally redistributed down to the rest of the population.  The palaces were essentially the places for this redistribution, and therefore I have begun my account with the Minoans, because the Minoan palaces were right at the heart of the Minoan civilisation.

But am I right to begin with the Minoans? The Minoans are generally considered to be an afterthought to any discussion of the great empires of the Near East.  The empires of Mesopotamia and Egypt are usually given pride of place – after all it was in Mesopotamia that the great empires first arose —  but it is the Minoans who made the palaces the centre of their civilisation and now thanks to Minoan Linear B, the economy is well documented.

So why do the palaces play such an important role in the Minoan civilisation?  It is interesting to note the differences with the other great civilisations. An obvious difference is that the Minoans lack the very rich burials which predominate in Egypt. One of the major aspects of the Egyptian society is their concentration on death.  This is something that makes Egyptology so divisive among archaeologists – either you love Egypt and its wealth of objects and become an Egyptologist or you are rather repelled by Egypt and its concentration on death.  It seems that the Egyptians spent most of their lives preparing for their death.  In the Valley of the Kings where most of the pharaohs of the New Kingdom are buried, there is a workman’s village where the workmen lived who prepared the tombs for the pharaohs.  They were mostly literate and have left behind many records of their daily lives written on scrap pot sherds which reveal that though they spend their working lives preparing the tombs for the pharaohs, they then spent their spare time preparing their own burial places for their own death.

This concentration on death and burial means that other aspects of the Egyptian society tend to be ignored: there are hundreds of books on Egyptian mummies and Egyptian temples, but there are very few books on Egyptian palaces — perhaps because apart from Amarna, few Egyptian palaces have survived.  But there are lots of tombs.

By comparison Minoan tombs are miserable.  Of course, Minoan tombs exist, but by comparison with other ancient societies they are small and insignificant.  The best are concentrated in the period before the palaces, when two different traditions developed. In the south, burials were made in small ‘tholos’ tombs, that is circular tombs often called bee-hive shaped tombs where the roofs curve in at the top.  These are concentrated in the south, in the plain of the Mesara where between 1905 and 1918 some 15 tombs were excavated by the Greek archaeologist Stephanos Xanthoudides, whose findings still form the basis of our knowledge of these tombs.  The main point to make is that they were used for collective burial, that is numerous burials were made one on top of the other.  Possibly indeed the bodies were  exposed elsewhere and it was only the bones that remained after exposure that were finally deposited in the tomb.  But they seem to have been family tombs where generation after generation were buried in the same tomb.

Minoan Larnax or Burial chest

The Minoan way of death: a Larnax, or clay burial chest, in the Ashmolean Museum

In the northern part of the island, however burials were made not in circular tombs but in rectangular chapels, rather like small houses, though again they were used for collective burial. Sometimes bodies were placed in a larnax, that is a pottery chest – such larnakes often form a fine display in museums devoted to Minoan archaeology. (Larnakes were also used for burials in Macedonia around the time of Alexander the Great, but that is a different story).

What is interesting is that the number of these burials seem to decline when the Minoan Empire was at its height in the period of the New Palaces. Grandiose burials only begin to reappear in the post-Minoan period, that is LMIII after the Mycenaeans had taken over and Mycenaean ideas with grand circular tholos tombs begin to be introduced and flourished briefly before both Mycenaean and Minoan empires collapsed into the dark ages. Archaeologists have sometimes wondered whether bodies may have been disposed of in another way, perhaps for instance by disposing of the body at sea. But it is only in the final period that rich burials resumed and these are of the Mycenaean type which is often taken to be evidence for the Mycenaean conquest of the Minoan Empire towards the end of its existence.

I sometimes wonder why it is that no-one seems to make the obvious speculation: does the emphasis placed on burials reflect the position of the ruler?  Were the pharaohs in Egypt thought to be essentially gods and treated as such?  And does the evidence of the Minoans prove the reverse, that their society was slightly more ‘democratic’?  Democratic is the wrong word –  but did the rulers of Minoan Crete remain human beings whose bodies after death were simply interred like other human beings in the family graveyard?


Minoan religion

Indeed what about Minoan religion generally? There are no temples as such in Minoan Crete, but who were their gods and how did they worship them? It is a question that can be approached in two different ways. On the one hand, Minoan gods did not live in temples but up mountains: at the top or near the top of many of the Cretan mountains, there are ‘peak sanctuaries’, where offerings were made and have sometimes survived.  The most important of these peak sanctuaries is on Mount Juktas, 13 kilometres south of Knossos, and it is often thought that Mount Juktas must be associated with Knossos at its sacred mountain.  Similarly at Phaistos the dominating shape of Mount Ida, the tallest mountain in Crete lying twenty miles to the North West, lowers over the courtyard and everyone who visits the courtyard immediately comes to the conclusion that the courtyard must have been laid out so that Mount Juktas can be seen behind the Royal Apartments.


Minoan ritual figures. The figure top left is presumably female , with a flounced skirt (from Knossos) . The figure centre is clearly male, while the figure top right has a dagger at his waist (both from the Petsofas cave, now in Ashmolean)

Minoan sacred cow, from Diktaean cave

A bovine figurine, from the Diktaean cave

Minoan legs

Two human legs presumably thank offerings to the gods (BM)

But the gods do not just live up mountains, they also live in caves, and in addition to the peak sanctuaries there are also sacred caves. By far and away the richest of these is that at Psychro in central Crete, a very spectacular cave with stalactites and stalagmites galore.  But in 1896 – 1900  D.G. Hogarth and then Arthur Evans extracted a rich haul of ritual objects, some of which are in the Ashmolean Museum.  There are also two important caves high up on Mount Ida.

In a valuable little book on Peak Sanctuaries and Sacred Caves, Donald Jones lists twenty peak sanctuaries and eight sacred caves.  The objects deposited there fall into four main categories: there are the human figurines, mostly made of clay, some of which have fancy coiffures and dress.  Sometimes they are clay limbs,  many of them legs, similar in a way to the limbs deposited in Catholic pilgrimage churches in thanks for the illness in the limbs concerned being cured.

There are also numerous clay figurines of animals, particularly bovines, that is  bull, ox or cow, awes well as an array of other species: goats, birds, pigs, dogs, beetles and snakes.  There are also bronze artefacts, notably bronze double axes and occasionally other weapons. There are also stone artefacts in the form of altars and offering tables, while ashes, presumably the remains of cooking fires, suggest that ritual feasting may have taken place.There is also pottery, both coarse cooking pots and sometimes the very exclusive pottery known as Kamares ware.

Kamares cups

Three cups of Kamares type, now in British Museum.

Two of the best-known caves are high up on Mount Ida, within sight of the Phaistos palace. One is the Idean cave which is sometimes claimed to be the birthplace of Zeus, where offerings were made right down into Hellenistic times. The other is the Kamares cave where a large number of ritual cups were found which have been named Kamares ware after the cave. They were made in the Early Palace period,  and are very distinctive being covered in a black glaze with red or white decoration. But they are very small, sometimes not much bigger than a big egg cup: I am reminded of the tea ceremony in Medieval Japan where similar sized cups were used of a similar thinness.  It is often thought that Kamares ware pottery must have been made in the imperial workshops at Phaistos and were then distributed to the other palaces, presumably in a gift exchange cycle and were then used is some elaborate drinking ceremony – probably wine rather than tea.

There is thus a fascinating collection of material from the peak sanctuaries and caves, though it must be admitted that when all added up,  there is miserable evidence for Minoan religion from these peak sanctuaries and caves, particularly when compared to the temples of Ancient Egypt or the ziggurats of Mesopotamia.  Perhaps in our atheistical 21st century, this is a plus point for the Minoans, in that they did not waste too much time and energy on religion; or is it just that the evidence has just not been preserved, or that we are looking in the wrong places?

Were the Palaces temples?

The alternative place to look for the function of temples is the palaces themselves, where the rulers kept a tight grip on religion and made sure that it was the crucial ceremonies were carried out close at home. The palaces clearly had some ritual aspects, most obviously in the lustral basins where some sort of washing ceremony was performed – rather like baptistery in Christianity, to purify the participants. There are also the ‘pillar crypts’ and also the Minoan halls with their elaborate ‘pillar and door’ arrangements of rooms with partitions.  And we must imagine an elaborate ceremony took place before you are admitted to an audience with the ruler.

But who were the Minoan gods?  An aspect that is often noted is the predominance of female statuettes in ritual assemblages.  Many have been tempted to interpret this as being the worship of a mother goddess, or even to wonder whether the Minoans were a matriarchal society ruled by women.  Were those bare breasted women powerful figures in society, their bare breasts symbolising their power and their dominance? It must be said that mother goddesses are currently out of fashion, but it seems clear that women played a greater role in the Minoan pantheon and indeed in Minoan society generally than they did in, say classical Greece.

Minoan bull and acrobat

A bull, with an athlete leaping over its horns (BM)

The other major feature are the bull leapers.  There are lots of little statuettes showing bulls, sometimes associated with men, and it is clear that bull leaping in whatever form it took, was not just part of Arthur Evans’ imagination, but formed a major part of ritual in Minoan Crete.  Indeed the legend of the Minotaur survived down into classical Greece, and was even taken up by Picasso.

The origin of the palaces

What was the function of the palaces?  Recent research at Knossos and Phaistos has suggested that in the pre-palatial phases before the palaces were built, in the Neolithic and early Bronze Age, the sites may have begun as places of assembly where people came together at intervals for exchange of goods and feasting.  Those of us who study British archaeology will think of the causeway camps of Neolithic Britain surrounded by rings of interrupted ditches, that is ditches with gaps in them, where there is little evidence of permanent occupation, but good evidence often in the form of buried stone axes for the exchange of prestige goods from different regions: it all culminated in Stonehenge with its special alignment on the mid-summer sunrise.

It is always a little difficult to obtain evidence for Knossos and Phaistos before the palace, because such evidence is buried under the existing palace.  But recent re-analysis of the pottery from the early levels both at Knossos and Phaistos appears to point to social practices involving feasting and ritual activities in large open areas within the settlement.  Specific types of pottery (including some considered ritual), large butchering deposits and open areas with special floors, seem to announce specific social practices which were progressively formalised during the early Minoan period.  In the Early Palatial period there is similar evidence of ritual feasting in the form of the Kamares type pottery that appears to have been manufactured at Phaistos but was widely distributed.

But if this is the background to the origin of the palaces, it would help to explain the function of the palaces as centre of exchange.  It has always been assumed that redistribution formed a major function of the palaces ever since the rows of amphorae were discovered at Knossos.  Colin Renfrew has argued, surely rightly, that the olive was the foundation of Cretan prosperity.  The olive does not indeed appear to be native to Crete, but once adopted,  it appears to have been grown with great success.  One of the advantages is that the olive can be grown in steeper and rockier territory than can cereals, and is thus very suitable to a mountainous terrain.  This is why the amphorae for storage of olive oil, play a conspicuous role in the Minoan palaces, even if they were sometimes used for grain and other commodities as well.

But olive oil is wonderfully versatile and the existence of the factory block at the palace of Malia suggests that there was elaborate processing to add value to the oil.  It can after all be used not only for food and cooking, but also as oil for lighting, and then more imaginatively can be made into a bar of soap or even better into various perfumes and cosmetics which may have formed the main use as a high prestige gift.


The Linear B evidence

Minoan linear B tablet, recording wool issued to women workers

A Minoan Linear B tablet recording the issuance of wool to women workers

The Linear B tablets also reveal what may have been the most important activity of all: that is textile production. Knossos ran a massive textile industry in which every aspect of manufacture and production was centrally controlled from management to wool producing cloths, to the provision of raw materials and rations to skilled specialists in textile workshops.  The workforce involved was substantial.  A tablet in the Ashmolean Museum records monthly rations for women at Knossos and Phaistos, and the amount of grain issued would have sufficed for 500 women at each location. The tablets record some 100,000 sheep producing between 30 and 50 tons of wool annually for luxury textile manufacturers – this was large scale industry.

In addition to olive oil,  elaborate metal work and jewellery may have been produced in the palaces under the eye of the ruler – if that indeed is how the apparent metal workers’ quarter can be interpreted at Phaistos.  But metal work would also have formed valuable prestige gifts for exchange.

But how far do the Minoans give a classic example of gift exchange? According to the anthropological theorists gift exchange should be symmetrical with the goods rendered upwards being balanced out by the goods distributed downwards.  But there is considerable doubt how far the trickle-down effect worked with the Minoans. Perhaps this is always the case; much of the wealth accumulated at the top was dissipated in feastings and displays of extravagance.  One thinks of the classic accounts of the Kwakiutl in North West America and their orgies of destruction when they burnt blankets to show how rich they were.  Little evidence remains for this, the principal evidence being the evidence for bull leaping.  Perhaps this was not entirely harmless and was more like the gladiators in the Roman arena where there was always the possibility that the participants would end up being killed.  And certainly if the stories in Greek myths of the Minotaur do indeed reflect anything of Minoan Crete, then the bull leaping would have been a horrific experience.

But for the population as a whole one suspects that life was good: the Minoan empire was clearly very efficient and the sheer numbers of the dwellings throughout Crete, many of them well built with squared stone masonry are the product of an economically successful society. Probably too  there is the effect of the ‘opium of the people’: if you live in a society where there is no choice, you do not expect anything better than your lot, there is nothing to compare it with, so you assume that the current situation is wonderful.   It is rather like the NHS in Britain today where everyone thinks it is marvellous because they do not have any choice.  It is only outsiders who raise an eyebrow and compare it to the other systems that work rather better in the rest of the world.

Arthur Evans painted a picture of Cretan society that was happy and successful:  modern revisionists have doubted much of his optimism.  But successful societies are often happy societies and the success of Crete, despite the various destructions that are so often attributed to earthquakes or volcanoes, probably made the inhabitants prosperous and contented.  When the collapse eventually came, it was followed by a dark age: but classical Greece that emerged from the embers, and surely owed something at least to the foundations that had been laid in Minoan Crete.


With this, my account of the Minoans comes to an end. May I now invite you to come with me to Egypt to compare the great Egyptian civilisation,  or alternatively to return to the introduction to the Minoans.


1st December 2016